More than the Vote: The Nineteenth Amendment as Proxy for Gender Equality
30 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2019 Last revised: 8 Jul 2020
Date Written: April 2, 2019
The original idea behind the Nineteenth Amendment was never just about the vote. Instead, the first women's rights movement 175 years ago, like the modern movement for the Equal Rights Amendment, sought comprehensive equality for women in all avenues of life. The constitutional text for women’s full equality and emancipation has changed over the centuries; first embodied in the grant of the vote as a proxy for structural change, and now incorporated into the demand for “equal rights.” Yet women have been consistent over time in understanding the radical idea that systems of governance, family, industry, and church need dismantling and reconstructing in order to support women’s equality and emancipation.
This paper first details the origins of women’s political demand for the vote as part of a comprehensive social reform. It then discusses the four strands of the comprehensive early women’s rights agenda for gender equality focused on the political state, domestic family, economic industry, and religious church. Finally, it connects the suffrage activism with demands for an equal rights amendment to realize the full civil rights of equality envisioned by and for women.
This long view of women’s rights shows that the movement was not solely about suffrage, but that the vote stood as a shorthand for a complete revolution of the interlocking systems supporting women’s oppression and denying women equal rights. The legal history illustrates that “women’s rights” has always been a multiple issue, multiple systems platform, even as certain issues like suffrage or abortion have been isolated in the dominant public discourse, often driven there by opponents of gender equality. Appreciating the context and constitutional history of the Nineteenth Amendment supports a more robust understanding of constitutional guarantees of gender equality today, supporting interpretations of “equal protection” under the Fourteenth Amendment to encompass the full array of public and private rights.
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